Grave Matters: Symbolic markers
Forget the idea of the dead speaking from their graves in a scary movie scene.
Grave markers are a gentler and more beautiful way to make the deceased’s voice heard from the past to the present.
Strolling through one of the many centuries’ old cemeteries in Washington County and studying the grave markers from yesteryear-engraved with flowers, an open book, an urn covered with drapery, a trio of chains or some other item- markers’ engravings speak of symbols that were an important part of the deceased’s life.
“A lot of the symbols are hands, whether they’re pointing up to heaven or clasped, praying hands,” said local historian Scott Britton. “That seems to be a pretty common theme in a lot of the old tombstones.”
Interested in military research, Britton also sees a great deal of “military symbolism whether it’s swords or flags actually sculpted into tombstones themselves, even cannons,” he said.
In Mound Cemetery in Marietta, Britton pointed to the grave site of a soldier whose tombstone showcased the Grand Army Republic (GAR) symbol of an eagle, atop crossed swords, the U.S. flag and a five-pointed star.
Rainbow Cemetery in Lowell reveals another military symbol: a very large acorn decorating the grave marker for Corp. Gustavus Adolphus Wood, who served in the Civil War in Col. Melvin Clarke’s 36th Ohio division.
Everett Yarnell, 71, of Lowell, a local genealogist, was surprised when he came upon the acorn tombstone.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen one like that,” he said.
Yarnell said his own grave marker has already been purchased, and will feature a cross, the most traditional symbol of Christianity, on two sides.
Other religious symbols depicted on tombstones include roosters, flying birds and bugles, to symbolize the resurrection; angels; a hand with a finger pointing upward to mark the pathway to heaven; a chalice or cup, to represent the sacraments; or a harp that symbolizes praise to God.
Visitors to Mound Cemetery may be familiar with the sight of a large grave marker for Martha Brainerd Spencer Wilson, featuring a kneeling woman in prayer and an urn atop a pile of rocks.
“She sits on a small, man made mound,” Britton said. “It’s a pretty well-known grave marker. People who’ve been up to Mound Cemetery won’t recognize her name but they’ll probably recognize her tombstone.”
Grave markers can also boast the insignia of fraternal associations like the International Order of the Odd Fellows.
“Many people aren’t familiar with the Odd Fellows,” said Britton.
Symbolized by three chains linked together, Odd Fellows are so called because of their dedication to giving the poor decent burials. The association can be confirmed by the observation of the letters IOOF or FLT (meaning Friendship, Love, Truth) either inside or near the chain.
Tombstones throughout Washington County often feature the square and compass symbols of Masons and Freemasons.
“There were a lot of Masonic organizations here,” Britton said.
Occupations were ofttimes represented with symbols on grave markers, too.
According to gravesecrets.net, anchors were used for mariners, compasses for shipwrights, a stalk of corn for farmers, and the crown, hammer and anvil for blacksmiths.
Many of today’s grave markers, now called monuments, continue to feature symbols like praying hands, double rings for marriage and the Mason and Eastern Star icons, said Rhett Matheney, co-owner of Matheney Funeral Homes in McConnelsville.
However, nowadays it’s the shape of the monuments themselves that often take center stage.
With computer technology and precision water cutting, monuments can be formed into teardrops, an arrowhead, angels, lighthouses and ocean waves, Matheney said.
“If you can think it up, you can have a stone made in it,” he said.